Kung fu TV

Warrior is the shit. It’s a violent kung fu spaghetti western that’s so very over the top. It’s set in 19th century San Francisco and I think is basically what Bruce Lee had wanted the original Kung Fu TV show to originally look like. The protagonist is literally fresh off the boat from China, but unlike other FOBs he knows kung fu and starts kicking racist ass as soon as he arrives.

The show has a lot about the politics around Chinese immigration at the time – the way politicians stoked working class racism at lost jobs, the way the Irish workers shat on those lower down the ladder than them, the way the rich businessmen gladly exploited the Chinese, the resentment the Chinese had against their oppression, and the gangsters and criminals who didn’t give much of a shit as long as they profited. But all this is expressed in modern-ish language (in fact, very hip hop language), and thanks to the magic of TV we hear English when the Chinese characters are talking all funny among themselves.

Did I mention the show is violent? Because it is. It’s what I wanted out of Into the Badlands and damn if it doesn’t deliver. If nothing else, just watch the opening, it’s stylish as hell. I like the whole 70’s kung fu movie poster thing.

The angel of combat

I liked Alita: Battle Angel. I’ve mentioned before that I liked the original manga, and I was rather concerned that a sprawling story would end up condensed into an abbreviated mishmash of various plot points set up to justify gratuitous and boring CGI action scenes.

But Robert Rodriguez pulled it off. I’m please with the narrative choices he made in taking a comic book story that unfolded over years and turning it into a regular length movie. Apparently James Cameron’s original script was 180 pages.

From viewing the trailer I thought it might be odd to see a big-eyed manga character interacting with actual people, but I quickly got used to it in the actual movie. I can see why the character of Alita was entirely CGI because of the numerous action scenes of cyborg kung fu – any live-action actor (Rosa Salazar, specifically) would need to be replaced by a computer-generated model when the fighting started, but there would have been a noticeable transition between the real person and the computer one. Having the character be completely CGI prevented this uncanny valley-tude.

It’s disappointing but I expect the movie won’t see a sequel. It appears not to have been a gigantic hit with the US market, though it’s been doing gangbusters overseas, especially in China. It made money but not Avengers money. I’m not even really put out, since even though the ending of the movie calls out for a continuation, what’s there is still satisfying on its own.

And my take-away from the whole thing? Alita is a quite decent action sci-fi film that I thoroughly enjoyed. If enough of you watch it, we might see Ed Norton in the sequel.

Monsters and mazes and dungeons and dragons

Two kids’ cartoons I’ve seen and recommend on Netflix: The Dragon Prince and The Hollow:

The first feels very Avatar: The Last Airbender because it was created by two veterans of that show (writers or producers or some shit, I don’t really care about behind the scenes stuff for animated shows). The relationships between the three protagonists, the way the characters talk, and how they relate to their circumstances is just like Avatar – i.e., the characters banter zippily in teen American slang in counterpoint to the seriousness of their quest and in contravention of the accepted cod medieval language of fantasy epics.

Unlike Avatar, the story takes place in a more traditional Western fantasy setting of elves and knights and dragons. Humans and elves are at war, three kids go on a journey to bring peace, they overcome various dangers in each episode, there are exciting an action scenes, etc.

I found it a rather pleasant show to binge, especially since each episode is less than half an hour.

The Hollow is also structured around a journey, but “Lost for kids” would be the better reference point. Three teenagers with amnesia wake up imprisoned in an underground bunker, they make their way through a strange land of monsters and mysteries, weird shit flies at the viewer so fast you forget that a lot of it doesn’t make sense, and there’s a plot twist in the end that may or may not land well for you. There are bunches of jokes but most of them are dumb so I think this is being aimed at a younger audience than the first show.

For some reason it’s made to look like it was made in Flash, but the action scenes are too complex for Flash so I guess the creators just like that style. Maybe they were working within certain budget limits, or maybe they think modern kids have been trained to expect simplistic animation. The episodes are also less than half an hour so I got through the whole thing fast.

The second season for The Dragon Prince has just been announced, but hopefully there will also be one for The Hollow since I could do with more uncomplicated series with short episodes to binge on.

Anyway, this has been a review of Netflix kids’ cartoons shows as evaluated by a thirtysomething Canadian man.

A fantasy anime that doesn’t suck

Coronation of the emperor in Record of Grancrest War, which clearly takes after Jacques-Louis David's The Coronation of Napoleon
Yes, they styled this scene after David’s Coronation of Napoleon

Say, Record of Grancrest War is actually a pretty solid fantasy show. The promotional material made it look like yet another crappy harem show where the main character shits himself every time an under-aged girl tries to give him a handjob but it’s not that at all. I can’t remember the last time an anime had two people who liked each other get together without any idiotic drama.

My biggest criticism is that it moves through the material a bit too quickly. Okay, there’s a world at war, aristocrats who drain magical powers from the rivals they defeat, vampires and werewolves and plucky allies and exotic locations and massive battles where actual characters die. Can we maybe have some time to dwell on each thing before we move on?

I assume this is because the anime is based on a light novel series. The studio probably was trying to squeeze as much as possible in.

But the animation is nice, the main characters are interesting, and it moves along decently. It’s a competently entertaining anime and it just recently ended so you get a complete story with no cliffhangers whose endings depend on the studio securing funding for a second season. I recommend it for your fantasy action fix.

Age of Wonders

Screenshot from Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic showing the game options available for a player controlling an elven army attacking undead foes

Remember when computer games had crappy voice actors? I do, because I’ve been playing Age of Wonders: Shadow Magic. I got it for like $2 on GOG a while ago and it really does deserve to be listed there, as it actually is a good old game.

The whole thing is kind of like Civilization in a fantasy setting, or maybe a turn-based version of Warcraft. Like Civilization you pick a certain people to play as, you go out into the world, build outposts and cities, gain allies and make enemies, conquer villages, and massacre entire races.

Unlike Civilization, heroes play a big part in the game thanks to its fantasy roots (specifically Dungeons and Dragons with the serial numbers filed off). The player is not some disembodied will directing the manifest destiny of a nation, but instead you are a mighty wizard leading your chosen race to victory over the untermenschen of the world.

I assume you can play as evil races like trolls and stuff but I’ve only done one of the starter campaigns and the story was entirely told from the perspective of the do-gooder elves and halflings. Anyway, your wizard is a unit on the map that you move around, they cast epic spells that can change the face of the world, and they can get their asses killed if you screw up in battle. The best thing to do is probably to stick your wizard in a tower and have them cast their spells from afar.

The race you pick also determines your technology and units, but again with a fantasy spin. The technology tree also deals entirely with getting magic spells that are unique to each race. Elves can get spells to summon unicorns and fairies, for example. Elves also have archers and their higher units are nymphs and druids, while humans have crossbowmen and knights.

The fantasy RPG setting also puts a pretty fun spin on maps because you can send your armies into the tunnels of the Underdark to assault your enemy from the rear, or travel into the Shadow Plane and flank their armies that way. It’s also fun to find random fantasy stuff on a map, like a hidden elf city in a forest you thought you’d already explored or a dungeon you can clear out or an inn where you can recruit a hero or a city that will switch to your side if you rescue them from the demons that besiege them.

Voice acting aside, the game is actually a lot less clunky than you would expect for something from the 90’s. I don’t really notice the interface most of the time, which is pretty much how it’s supposed to work. It’s easy to get sucked in while you’re playing – for instance, I almost missed a social engagement over the weekend because I told myself I’d just finish a map before getting ready to leave. The game is just fun to play and being like 20 years old it’ll run on anything. I say check it out if you like this sort of thing.

Somewhere Out There

I recently finished the visual novel Out There Chronicles: Episode 1.

Screenshot of the female spaceship captain Nyx and the dialogue responses available to the player

In case you’re unaware, visual novels are a game genre originally from Japan that are essentially digital Choose Your Own Adventure games. There’s music and perhaps some simple animation, but otherwise the game part is just choosing out of a short list of responses or actions.

Being from Japan, most visual novels use the same visual style you would be familiar with from anime and manga and Japanese video games, and being relatively cheap to make, the vast majority of them are shit. The creative outlay, after all, is just still images, music, and text. You don’t even need any fancy programming as there are game maker programs out there where you can just drop your files straight into a framework and then it’ll spit a game out right quick.

Of course, there’s no reason that visual novels must inherently suck or all be about who’s dating whom in a fictional Japanese high school. I liked this one that I played. You, the protagonist, wake up from suspended animation a million years in the future on the planet America, home of what may be the last humans in the universe. You make your way through this strange society to find out what happened to your own colony ship, the Europa, while trying to hide what exactly happened before Earth died and everyone ran for it.

Screenshot of a spaceship flying through the sky over a rocky alien landscape

What did I like in particular? Well, the visuals are arresting and distinctive, not just for the look of the characters but for the environments they move in as well (the void of space, a futuristic park, a giant restaurant tree). It’s obvious how constrained the choices were but I didn’t feel as railroaded as I should have – the narrative was compelling enough that the choices presented were the ones I wanted to choose anyway just so I could see what happened next.

Anyway, this is only the first episode. There will be more to come. As with all serialized storytelling, the makers may shit the bed in later installments, but for now I’m anticipating the next episode. Thumbs up from me.

The war of two worlds

I’m finally up to date on Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes series. It’s about a hidden family who can travel between parallel universes – our world and one that’s still in a quasi-medieval level of technology. They use this power to smuggle drugs and shit and have become rich and powerful in two worlds.

The series was mostly written in and is set during George W. Bush’s War on Terror years, and it’s almost nostalgic to read paranoid descriptions of Dick Cheney’s secret intelligence empire. Old Dick is in the series as an unseen antagonist, by the way, though he is referred to by his Secret Service codename WARBUCKS (Dubya is BOY WONDER).

It gets pretty crazy by the end. Cheney was apparently in the pay of the worldwalkers back in the 80’s so when their existence is revealed, he moves to exterminate them to hide all evidence of his corruption. There’s blowback, the interdimensional narcoterrorists steal a backpack nuke, and the White House along with Bush II explodes in nuclear fire.

But the USA has unlocked the secret of worldwalking and retaliates by carpetbombing the other world with nukes. Some of the narcos manage to escape to a third parallel world, one where New Britain rules the Americas. The 44th President of the US is Dick Cheney, who dies of natural causes not long after taking office. The 45th President is Donald Rumsfeld. And thus ends the first series.

Anyway, the story had been on hold for a while, and I can see why. Where can things go from here? Well, in the first book of the sequel series, things have gone in a completely different direction. It’s now 2020 and the worldwalkers have ensconced themselves in the government of New Britain. They live openly as interdimensional travellers, occasionally returning to our world to steal technology. They’re frantically developing the industry of their new country as a bulwark against the coming of the Americans. The United States is now even more of a militarized panopticon society, a kind of digital age Soviet Union where smartphones occupy the role of Stasi informants.

And now the stage is set for the rest of the Empire Games series. Worlds collide! I’m actually rather interested in what comes next.

And on that note, happy Labour Day weekend, ye workers of the world.

Gen X and the 21st Century

Thanks to a possible gas leak last weekend I watched more movies than I’d planned on. (My house is fine bee tee dubs).

So, Valerian. It reminded me of reading a French sci-fi comic book in that it looked good but the story was thinner than the toilet paper in a public bathroom. I actually fell asleep during the souk shootout, mostly because I didn’t really care if the characters made it. I don’t need to enumerate the rest of the movie’s shortcomings since they’ve been covered well by others already, but it’s no Transformers. I think this will be decent enough to watch when it ends up on Netflix.

Now, Atomic Blonde, that’s a very stylish movie. It’s like 70% style, 30% substance, and 110% Charlize Theron. Actually, maybe I should run my numbers again since it actually did make more sense than, say, Sucker Punch. But despite the Cold War setting it’s not an 80s spy thriller so much as a Gen X nostalgia fantasy movie (i.e., it’s nostalgic for the 80s but for a fantasy version of it where it’s all sexy people with meaningful jobs doing things that matter in between making out with each other).

I hadn’t realized before how tall Charlize Theron was but the movie made sure we noticed this in almost every scene she was in. I appreciated this reminder of her physical presence since this made it more believable that she could engage in hand to hand combat with large angry men. I also appreciated that the movie was conspicuous in showing her looking for weapons every time she would throw down, even if it’s as simple as a bunch of keys clutched in her fist, since weapons do a lot to make fights more equal.

One thing that did take me out of the movie was the selfie in the beginning. People didn’t take selfies with film cameras unless there was a mirror involved, dammit. Otherwise you wouldn’t know if you were in the frame until you got the pictures back a week after you dropped the film off, which might be months after you originally took the picture if you didn’t use your camera a lot and took forever to use up a roll of film. Also, I don’t want to imagine how much work it would take to edit a tape recording in a hotel room, considering it’s already a bitch with digital files under ideal conditions.

But whatever, it’s a minor point. My take away? I liked Atomic Blonde.

Tales of the City

Book cover of Imaginary Cities showing a futurist rendering of a shining white city of skyscrapers with a crowd of tourist in 1930s clothing gaping at the panorama

I am in the midst of reading Imaginary Cities by Darran Anderson. The best description of it is one that it provides – a nonfiction version of Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. It’s just as hard to describe as the latter book. Basically it’s a collection of short essays loosely grouped around certain themes regarding cities of fiction and dream and myth and architecture.

Well, perhaps “essay” is the wrong word as essays traditionally argue for a point of view, whereas in this book the pieces mostly wander back and forth through Samuel Coleridge and Le Corbusier and Judge Dredd and whatnot. Reading it is like reading Calvino’s book. I think my favourite piece so far is the one about science fiction stories of cities ruled by women – both the ones written by men that are panicked screeds about feminism and the smaller number written by women that seriously try to imagine egalitarian societies.

My biggest complaint at this point is that the book is quite Eurocentric. It would have been stronger if it at least included Asian notions of city building, as historically the largest cities in the world have been in Asia. If there’s a cyberpunk section later on that doesn’t mention Akira then I’m going to be disappointed.

Other than that, I like the book so far.

Sing, O Muse

DOOM's space marine protagonist fighting off an endless wave of demons

I had no idea that the Los Angeles Review of Books was covering video games but it seems obvious in hindsight. Games are texts in a literary theory sense, after all, as Wikipedia explains:

In literary theory, a text is any object that can be “read,” whether this object is a work of literature, a street sign, an arrangement of buildings on a city block, or styles of clothing. It is a coherent set of signs that transmits some kind of informative message. This set of symbols is considered in terms of the informative message’s content, rather than in terms of its physical form or the medium in which it is represented.

As texts, games are open to analysis like any other text. It was inevitable that their analysis would move out of the amateur space of student papers and personal blogs and into the formal world of published reviews after the generation that played video games was old enough to get PhDs in literature.

Anyway, the following article is an excellent analysis of the liberal democratic zeitgeist that’s valuable even if one has not played the video game being reviewed. It’s about the modern politics of rage as mediated through the 2016 reboot of the DOOM game franchise.

It’s all great, but here are some choice bits for the tl;dr brigade:

DOOMguy Knows How You Feel

The Union Aerospace Corporation [UAC] appeared as a futuristic defense contractor in the original game. In some not-too-distant, post-apocalyptic future, it has decided that the only path to a sustainable future for humanity is to literally mine energy from Hell. Shockingly, this path to prosperity goes horribly awry. It is up to the newest incarnation of doomguy to sort it out, mostly through destroying key objects, ignoring proffered advice, and murdering a dizzying assortment first of zombified ex- (post-?) UAC employees and then, well, the demonic legions of Hell itself . . .

Games are machines for producing affect, and the affect the public most fears in games is rage . . . The DOOM Emotion Machine pushes you to move beyond mere expression of rage, not just inchoate, unfathomable rage, not just rage at any old thing or the nearest narratively acceptable target, but to feel free to rage at the people who brought you here, rage at their apologists, rage at the idiocy of HR, rage at the plodding stupidity of looking for one more source of “dead labor” . . . Rage at Hell but rage at who brought you to Hell and why any of this is necessary at all . . .

DOOM wants you to consider that when “they go low,” you will scrape the pits of Inferno to go ever lower. DOOM wants you to feel more. But — and perhaps this is sheer, irrational hope on my part, a shard of redemption in a game of bleak glee — DOOM wants you to remember that it is all so stupid. That all of this is instrumental, that the only way out is through, but that this is brutalizing to the world and to yourself. In my most hopeful moment, I think DOOM has old Spinoza on the mind: learn to feel joy in the world again and yes, learn to feel joy in the pain of enemies but remember that it is just — in a measure of mere magnitude — a lesser joy than in the flourishing of friends.

This is some goddamn top shelf games writing. A thousand aggregated Metacritic scores could not encompass the informativeness of this review.

Also, if you’re keen to peruse the magazine’s other video game essays, I recommend Something is Rotten in the State of Lucis: On “Final Fantasy XV”, which analyses the political philosophy of Final Fantasy XV, with especial regard to Hamlet and Americana. I probably won’t ever get FFXV, but this review is well-written enough to give a non-player much to ruminate on.